Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Other’s (2005) is set in East Berlin during the socialist reign from November 1984, up until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. The political context plays a significance role not only in the film’s subject matter but also in its cinematography, which exploits the voyeuristic tendencies of the audience, reflecting the surveillance of the Stasi Secret Police officers. The film follows a loyal socialist and playwright, Georg Dreyman who becomes subject (along with actor girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland) to extensive Stasi surveillance due to his association with subversive artists such as Paul Hauser and Albert Jerska. Hauptman Gerd Weisler is the accomplished Stasi officer assigned to undertake the secret observation of the goings on at Dreyman’s apartment, but his devotion to the Socialist State begins to waver as he develops a sympathy with the artists and their acts of rebellion.
One particular sequence within the film seems to encapsulate its essence, in representing not only the prominent stylistic features found throughout the film, but also in demonstrating developments within the narrative line.
In this scene, Stasi officer Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz questions his subordinate Hauptman Gerd Weisler “Are you on the right side?” exhibiting his suspicions about Weisler’s loyalty to the State, which begin to accumulate throughout the film’s duration. Weisler consequently interrogates actress Christa-Maria Sieland about the typewriter used by her boyfriend and playwright Georg Dreyman to write a subversive article about suicide that was published in the West. The sequence is divided into two distinct parts; the interrogation and the consequences of this interrogation, in which Dreyman confronts Sieland about her suspicious behaviour and Weisler removes the incriminating typewriter from Dreyman’s apartment before a team of Stasi agents search his premises a second time.
This sequence functions as a narrative and suspense device. The constant use of medium shots and close-ups creates a sense of claustrophobia and tension as the camera is confined to the character’s expression. This is accentuated by framing of the shots, whether it is by exterior shots enclosed by tall, grey buildings, or the cramped, utilitarian room of interrogation. Use of reverse angle shots in combination with tracking shots of figures’ backs stress the position of the audience as surveyor as we watch with anticipation the outcome of Sieland’s betrayal.
In regards to narrativity, the sequence draws important narrative links relating to the film in its entirety. In particular, Sieland’s recognition of Weisler in the interrogation room from the bar, Weisler removing the typewriter from the apartment and the mounting suspicion Grubitz has of Weisler, are each essential elements of the film’s plot development within this scene.
The opposing forces in the film are neatly framed within the sequence, particularly in the interrogation scene. Match cuts are used in the interrogation scene, emphasizing the parallels between the socialist, Grubitz, and the rebel, Weisler. Each figure is in a different room, separated by mirror. The use of a reverse mid shot makes the audience feel as if we are almost peering over the shoulder of Grubitz who is watching Weisler, again positioning the audience in a voyeuristic gaze as we watch both figures. Grubitz’ figure is reflected in the mirror, symbolizing the overbearing sense of power and surveillance within the scene. Diegetic sounds in combination with cross-cutting stress the significance of the two sides of the mirror and the contrast of the characters Grubitz and Weisler. For example, Grubitz reacts to the sound of the door opening in the next room, the film cuts to the room with Weisler and we then see the visual of the door actually opening to reveal Sieland.
The use of reflections is a motif utilized throughout the film, representative of...
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